South Korea students begin online learning in late start to academic year; Covid-19 cases lowest in 7 weeks

A teacher conducts an online class at a high school in Seoul on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - Tens of thousands of teenagers logged on for remote learning on Thursday (April 9) as the much-delayed new academic year in South Korea began in phases, while the number of new coronavirus cases dropped to the lowest in seven weeks.

Schools remain closed physically, but teachers for the third and final year of middle and high school turned up to conduct virtual lessons.

Students aged 15 and 18 tuned in to lessons livestreamed on platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom from home, as the government continued to battle the virus that has so far infected 10,423 people and killed 204 of them.

Thirty-nine new cases were reported on Thursday - the lowest in the seven weeks since a community outbreak exploded in the south-eastern city of Daegu.

Daily new figures have hovered around 50 for four consecutive days, as the government strengthened social distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The measures, which include keeping a 2m distance from other people when out, have been extended to April 19.

Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip warned against complacency, even as he thanked medical workers for their sacrifice and cooperation in helping to slow down the outbreak.

Mr Jeong Eun-kyeong, director-general of the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, urged people to stick to social distancing measures "because an explosion of large-scale infections could happen again at any time".

The new school year, which was supposed to start on March 2, was delayed at least five weeks due to fears of mass infection.

South Korea's education minister Yoo Eun-hae (centre) observes an online class at a high school in Suwon, South Korea, on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Online learning, which will expand over the next two weeks to include all elementary, middle and high schools, got off to a relatively smooth start, according to local reports.

Teachers at Seoul Girls High School were seen standing in front of empty classrooms from about 8am, taking attendance of students online before proceeding to conduct lessons.

Some schools experienced teething problems, such as a one-hour delay for classes running on the state-run Educational Broadcasting System Online due to technical issues and missing sound in pre-recorded video clips.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae has urged students, parents and educators to work together to make online learning work, stressing the importance of preventing schools from becoming potential breeding grounds for the virus.

"We believe schools should not stop teaching students amid a crisis," she said in a statement.

Schools are allowed to choose from three modes of online learning - interactive, real-time learning via video conferencing, content-based learning based on videos produced by the school, and assignment-based learning whereby students are given projects or reports to do.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has pledged efforts to ensure remote learning goes well, adding that "we will do our best to stabilise the situation so our children can go to school".

A teacher gives an online class at a school in Seoul on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Meanwhile, the government is set to toughen measures to prevent people from breaking self-quarantine rules. Self-quarantine is compulsory for anyone who enters South Korea from April 1. Offenders can face a fine of up to 10 million won (S$11,700) or up to a year in jail.

A 40-year-old Indonesian national was deported on Wednesday for breaking the rules, the first foreigner to be punished for doing so.

The Justice Ministry is now considering deporting three Vietnamese students caught leaving their homes in Gunsan city, south-east of Seoul, last week. They left their mobile phones behind to avoid GPS tracking by local health authorities.

The government has also proposed using electronic wrist tags on people put under quarantine.

A poll by Realmeter showed that eight in 10 people surveyed support the idea, but Korea's Human Rights Commission has urged against it, arguing that it can infringe a person's basic human rights.

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